Selectmen approve 25% plans, 4-1

With the approval of Arlington’s police and fire chiefs, the Board of Selectmen last night voted to send so-called 25% plans for Mass. Ave to the state for review.

Arlington residents listen to the discussion of the 25% plan on Monday night.

Arlington residents listen to the discussion of the 25% plan on Monday night.

The vote was the next step in a process that could net $4.5 million in state and federal funds for Arlington. Construction could begin as early as Spring 2012.

About 90 people attended the meeting in the Town Hall Auditorium.

The plans are not final, but describe such contentious issues as lane configuration and the location of traffic signals.

The plan as approved has one new traffic signal at Bates and Marion, 5-foot bicycle lanes, and a safer “one-and-one-half-lane” configuration westbound (one through lane and dedicated left-turn lanes at intersections).

The plan went through five drafts and was the subject of public discussion or review at six community hearings. Residents of neighborhoods affected prevailed on the planning process to retain two traffic signals that had been marked for removal, and automobile advocates won an extra lane of traffic eastbound between Lake and Thorndike Streets.

Other pedestrian-safety features include curb extensions and bump-outs at crossings, and extra-wide median areas that are flush with the pavement.

There’s more about the plan and the vote on it in the following summary. You can download detailed drawings, and the Functional Design Report, for the 25% plans at this town web page. My personal comments are in red.

Board Chairman Kevin Greeley began the meeting by introducing town officials and employees. He noted that this meeting was not a hearing with questions and comments from the public.

Laura Wiener, the senior town planner assigned to the project, told the Selectmen that the reconstruction of Mass. Ave. is eligible for $4.5 million appropriated by Congress. The project is currently part of the draft list of projects for 2012 that is set by the Boston Metropolitan Planning Organization. Actually she said we “are on the TIP for 2012” (TIP is the Transportation Improvement Project, really a list of projects, that is managed by the MPO; more at the MPO’s web page.)

She noted that the TIP has not been approved by either the state or federal governments, but that construction could begin in the spring of 2012. The Town had originally hoped to begin construction on 2010. In my view, this was never realistic. Still, it is arguable that by pressing ahead as aggressively as possible, the town has managed to get things moving; this project has been stalled for years.

Michael Rademacher, the town engineer, told the Selectmen that Mass. Ave. in East Arlington was last paved in 1994, and is today at the end of it’s “useful lifespan.” The sidewalks, he said, are in “tough shape” and do not meet disabilities criteria; they and the traffic signals are much older than 1994.

He said that to do the “bare minimum” to rebuild this stretch of roadway without the federal grant would use 4–5 years of highway funds, which would not be available for other road projects in Arlington.

John Michalak, the lead consultant to the Town on this project, and Christine Scypinski, a landscape architect, gave presentations touching on the history, goals, benefits, and design strategies reflected in the plan. These were lengthy, and deserve a full summary, but I’m not going to try to do that now.

Finally, the selectmen each had time for questions and statements.

Diane Mahon began by asking how many parking spaces will be eliminated by the new plan. John Michalak said less than five, and Laura Wiener corrected him, saying that by moving fire hydrants to spaces where parking is already prohibited they were able to have a net loss of only two spaces.

This exchange was actually a lot less straightforward than this. Ms. Mahon was asking for a comparison of existing parking, including illegal spaces, with future parking.

At one point she wanted to know if the consultants had ever counted all the legal and illegal parking spaces. Mr. Michalak said that individual parking spaces are not marked on Mass. Ave., making it hard to count existing spaces, legal or not. (He never actually answered her question with a yes or no.)

If Ms. Mahon’s purpose was to get the experts on the record as saying there would be fewer parking spaces, she made her point. But the illegal parking spaces are, for the most part, unsafe, and don’t belong in any before/after comparison. They are also not allowed. If it’s true there is only a loss of two spaces along the entire length of Mass. Ave., that’s actually quite an accomplishment.

Ms. Mahon then explained that she does not support the plan because there has not been enough outreach by the Town to residents. Consequently, she said, there might be sufficient public opposition to the plan that the State would reject the Town’s grant application and we would lose the $4.5 million.

Given her previous line of questioning, I was surprised that she did not oppose the plan on substantive grounds — for instance, that it would “lose” two parking spaces, albeit illegal ones — but she kept her objections to process. Two of her colleagues specifically took issue with her statement that there had been poor public participation in the planning process. In my view, there was some validity to this criticism back in April, but not any more, and not for a while.

Her argument about maybe losing the funding was ambiguous. I spoke to a few people who interpreted it as a threat — to defeat the project, lose the funding, and let the chips fall where they may. I think it’s possible, though, that she meant it to take a step back from that position, deflecting possible blame for such a loss (which would be devastating to the Town).

In effect, she is blaming her colleagues in advance for such a loss. That may be a stretch, but it’s a much bigger stretch to conclude that she wants Arlington to lose the funding.

Annie LaCourt began by asking the police and fire chiefs to comment on the 25% plan. Both Fire Chief Robert Jefferson and Police Chief Fred Ryan said that they had had some concerns but those had all been addressed.

Ms. LaCourt expressed some disappointment that the plan had traded away some pedestrian-safety elements, but said that had been in response to community priorities, and she was willing to compromise. “It’s time to move forward,” she said.

Clarissa Rowe directed most of her remarks to business owners on the corridor, pledging to go to bat for them with road contractors to see that construction-related problems and issues are resolved quickly. Ms. Rowe recently moved to East Arlington about a block from the Capitol Theater; I interpreted her remarks to include being on hand personally during construction.

Kevin Greeley said that in twenty-one years he had never seen a project with this much public participation.

Jack Hurd echoed those sentiments, saying that this is the only project in twelve and a half years that has had this kind of public outreach.

The vote was 4 -1.

More of my thoughts, if you can stand them, follow.

By definition, in a democracy there is no such thing as too much public participation. But there has not been a dearth of it in this project, including six public workshops and hearings, the results of which heavily influenced the 25% design. Moreover the process is not over by a long shot.

Opponents of the project had a grievance last spring, but today they continue to brandish their complaint that they did not know about some of the public meetings as though it were some kind of magic get-out-of-jail-free card. It’s old.

In a democracy you have the right to be heard, but not the right to prevail, especially when there are other compelling voices that differ with yours.

So, what is a responsible critic of the project — and I count myself one — to do? Do you compromise, as Annie LaCourt says? Or do you continue to make your case as strongly as possible on principle, without regard to the possible consequences?

Arlington has a great tradition of activism and outspokenness, from its peace vigilers to the Good Neighbor Committee. At best, this tradition challenges, questions, and leads to improvements. Will that be the result this time?

1 comment so far

  1. MYeaton on

    Thank you very much for posting this information. It has been helpful to me, as I was not able to attend the public meetings. I think this is an ambitious project and one that has been needed for a while. While I don’t agree with all the decisions in the plan, I do think it’s much better than the current situation in E. Arlington, which makes my blood pressure go up every time I drive through there. Thanks again for taking the time for attending meetings and posting this.

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